Gannett’s changes bring excitement, some pain, and a full-time beer beat

A conversation with Joshua Awtry, the chain's top editor in the Carolinas

Yesterday was a busy one for Josh Awtry. He was one of a handful of editors at Gannett-owned papers around the country who spent the day explaining to reporters and staff the specifics of some big changes coming their way. Gannett, which recently announced it is splitting its publishing and broadcast divisions into separate businesses, will also see several newsrooms restructured in the coming weeks.

As Poynter’s Sam Kirkland reported, Awtry, who leads North Carolina’s Asheville Citizen-Times and The Greenville News in South Carolina, was one of at least five Gannett editors to pen an open letter to readers about what to expect. At The Tennessean, editor Stefanie Murray talked about “embarking on an ambitious project to create the newsroom of the future.” In Florida’s Pensacola News Journal, editor Lisa Nellessen-Lara said the paper would add two reporters, but lose two copyeditor positions. Editor Hollis Towns at New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press wrote that his paper will be putting more resources into digital production and “flattening our management structure to be more nimble, with fewer hierarchical reporting lines and fewer managers.” (Meanwhile, over at Jim Romenesko’s blog, sources were saying reporters at some Gannett papers would have to reapply for their jobs.)

In his own letter to readers of the Citizen-Times, Awtry wrote with excitement about changes at his paper, with the caveat that such “realigning will come with some pain.” I caught up with him late yesterday to see if he could shed any more light on what’s going on with the company and the newsrooms. He’s genuinely excited about his overhaul of the two papers he runs, and he puts on a bold face for Gannett. But he’s also frank about how the changes will affect lives and careers. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity:

In your letter you said the paper will have more reporters. Does that mean you’re going to hire more reporters, or are we talking about moving people from different positions into reporter roles?

It completely depends. We could have some people who are in editing roles, whether they reported in their past or had an interest in reporting, or there’s something about that that speaks to them and we think they’d be amazing at it, they will have first crack if that’s a role that really excites them.

What I want more than anything is a room full of people who love their job. I want a room full of people who have some passion for this, because I think it’s a freakin’ blast. This is an exciting business. I want other people who share that and if that editor feels some passion for reporting then I want that person to be there. At the same time, if we look at the journalists we have and we decide that we don’t have the right fit for that person after folks have gone through the application process, yeah, we will consider outside candidates.

For us it’s about developing what each community needs, and every newsroom, it’s my understanding, will look at this as very, very different. I’m probably one of the few papers out there now that will have a full-time beer reporter. Really it’s about finding the right structure and finding the perfect people who are going to do the perfect jobs in those roles, and I hope that those people come from within the organization if they have the right skills.

There’s been talk about reporters having to reapply for jobs at some of the other papers. Are newsroom employees at the Citizen-Times having to reapply for their jobs?

What I can say is that this is a test, and every single role in this is—and this not management-speak—every single role is hugely different. When we talk about the very concept of a reporter—what we are asking of a reporter—it might be things that we’ve verbally asked folks to do for years and some people have done those things and some people have not done those things, but we are asking everyone to think radically different.

And for someone like me who’s been here in this seat for six months, to point a finger and say, “Hey, you people I don’t think have the skills, you people I want you in those jobs,” to me that isn’t fair. I can speak as far as my newsrooms here in Asheville and Greenville, because these jobs are so different, [the best thing] is to actually ask people to step forward and say, “Yeah, you know I’m interested in this thing.” For someone who’s been in a particular reporting role for X amount of time, this is an opportunity for them to say, “I’m interested in this other thing, this sounds appealing to me.”

In your letter to readers you mentioned being part of a “concerned team of editors.” Was there a group of editors within Gannett around the country who have been talking about these big changes for a while?

It actually started out of conversations when we were doing a different project in the company. And throughout this secondary project that we were working on we kept asking ourselves, “Are these things we’re talking to reporters about”—that project included a lot of things about much more data-driven analysis and reporting structures, and a lot more communicating directly with the public, which is something we used to do—we kept asking ourselves, “Is this bold enough?” Asking our reporters to do this is a big step, but is it enough? Really the conversation started pretty organically out of that and eventually we all convened as a much more formal group, but all of the discussions really started, I think, around break tables and the like during the course of that group.

You said in your letter that the realignment would come with some pain. What kind of layoffs are we talking about?

This is going to sound like a difficult answer to your question, but I don’t know.


There could be some amazing copyeditors—and in fact there are some amazing copyeditors in our two shops—but there could be people who have got amazing digital production areas and we’re greatly up-staffing as far as those digital producers who will add deeper links to stories, things like that, so it’s not as if we’re getting rid of all those copyeditors and not bringing those skills back … I will not hire a digital producer who doesn’t have a strong grasp of editing.

So these five or so letters to readers in Gannett papers about restructuring all came very soon after the news that the company is splitting up its publishing and broadcast divisions. What’s up with that?

These things were in no way connected. These are things that we have been planning, as far as editors in the newspaper division, completely independent of this. They are not tied together in any way.

Let’s talk about that beer reporter.

The Carolinas will have a full-time beer reporter. Right now, both Asheville and Greenville have beer reporters in different fashions. Asheville has a reporter who does a lot of beer coverage but has to pick up other things too. In Greenville the beer reporter also covers the nuclear energy plant.

When layoffs have happened in the past, it was, “This position is gone and we need you to do these jobs,” and peoples’ lives have gotten, I think, needlessly hectic. And this is a chance to set up reporters around really, really deep coverage areas. Having a reporter who covers beer and the nuclear energy industry, I don’t know which of those two halves he’s reporting on. And this makes it easier for that person to be a deep subject expert on one thing.

You also said you’d have more watchdog and accountability reporting. After this restructuring, you’re saying your papers will do more of that?

Unquestionably. I hope everybody does—Gannett, not Gannett. I can’t say this enough: That’s our path to the future. To me the future is not about low-hanging fruit and, you know, click-bait’s a trendy word, but click-bait-style headlines … we can do that and we could grow pageviews tomorrow. That’s not what I’m in the game for. I want to make a difference in our community. I know the other editors who have embarked on this project, too, have done that. In fact some of the positions that we’ve allocated, or re-allocated, it’s been painful, but that’s why we’ve had to do this, is to add a dedicated watchdog position. In a newsroom Asheville’s size that is not necessarily a common thing. We’re also upping to a full-time political reporter in Asheville that we were never able to do before.

We’ve always had sort of a government accountability beat, but we’re taking a few other things off that plate so that person can focus more on it. And to wind up in a newsroom, even though we have to go through some painful contraction, but a newsroom that comes out on the other side with that trio alone—watchdog reporter, a government accountability reporter and a regional politics reporter—that’s what we need to do and I’m thrilled to be a part of that.

How do you envision the role of a full-time political reporter for the Citizen-Times?

It’s a person to focus on state and national politics, but really only so much as it affects our region. We’re not going to go toe-to-toe with a Raleigh [paper] on overall legislative news, we’re going to find out those bills that are having an effect here and really focus on them. And we’ve had a great reporter [in that] position, but he’s had to wear that hat along with several others.

The key job is going to be connecting with our state representatives and our representatives on the US level in our districts.

[Editor’s note: Last October, the United States Project critiqued the local coverage of U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican dubbed by CNN as the “architect” of the government shutdown, and who represents a western North Carolina district outside Asheville. We headlined the piece “Mountain Pass.”]

So, bottom line: Are all these changes going to save your paper money, or are they going to cost you money?

Ultimately they are going to save us a little bit of money. We are going to be a little bit smaller overall. I don’t want to mince words there. I think we owe it to readers to be fair about that. The size of the newsroom will be a little bit smaller overall.

But again, I wish to heck I could separate these messages in some different way because if we were out to cut costs, there are a heck of a lot more efficient ways to cut costs than this. This is really about hitting a reset and if we start from scratch and say, “What needs to be in our newsrooms?” and we start with those principles of accountability reporting, of watchdog reporting, and those are your first two positions to draw on your org chart, what else do you still need to have, and at the end of the day when you’ve used up your numbers what else is left?

You’re running two different Gannett papers in two states. How are the changes at the Citizen-Times differing from The Greenville News?

I would say they’re both responding to two entirely different challenges. In Greenville, I think what readers are going to notice is we’re getting really serious about creating these really tight coverage area beats so people can be subject experts. I think in Greenville right now you have reporters who are very, very broad-based in their knowledge, which is great, but I would much rather if they could really zero in and be experts on very tightly focused beats. Think of beats in that really classic old-school term. I think we’re turning back to owning that coverage beat. That was, I think, the biggest hurdle we had to overcome in Greenville.

In Asheville where we’ve made some of those beat changes, I think the biggest change for us is going to be a hugely expanded [team of] digital producers. Readers are going to notice very quickly that we’re not just shoveling out printed copy up on the website. You’re going to see stories that have deep links that haven’t existed before. We wrote a great story about water rights two months ago, you’re going to see it come up in every story about water that we write and have it be linked to. You’re going to see a lot more interactive graphics. You’re going to see a lot of the stuff you see out there on classy, premium, national-caliber news websites, and we’re deploying it in a way to bring that home on a really small paper level.

On Twitter you once mentioned newsroom discussions about the concept of explainers like in response to a piece we did. Will we start to see some of that?

I cannot wait to do more of that. We dipped our toes into that— no pun intended—with the water-rights story, we really did a good explainer out of it. But to me it was still the way a newspaper does an explainer story and not like you’d see with a Vox or a FiveThirtyEight.

Explanatory journalism is the new long-form journalism. Everybody’s talking about it these days. But a lot of people have taken that to mean, “I’m just going to write a really long story about a topic.” It has to be different than that and I think those stories serve the community in a lot of ways. They work great for us in the business because people read them and they come back to them for reference material. Most newsrooms aren’t set up to think about that because everyone’s worried about feeding the beast the next day. I feel like we can take our foot off the accelerator peddle by adding more reporters, and people can slow down a little bit and think about what they should be doing.

So everything we’ve talked about, this is just how the Gannett stuff affects you as editor of Asheville Citizen-Times and The Greenville News. There’s no Gannett suit pulling the strings for all of you?

My views are mine and don’t necessarily represent wherever Gannett is or isn’t going. I think people assume that there is a guiding presence, when in reality you’ve just got a lot of editors trying to do the right thing for their communities. And sometimes those happen to be the same thing.

This whole process has, I think, been full of freedom. It sounds like I’m walking a company line, but there have been so many opportunities to help shape this and even with these common roles it’s like having a thousand Lego blocks, you can build a million different things out of this, and I think it’s exciting.

Thanks for the talk (and for not punting this interview request to corporate).

The public has gotten so good at detecting when they’re being fed something. Am I excited about this? Am I proud of this? You’re damn right I am. But, we’re affecting lives here, and we’re affecting jobs, and we’re affecting people. And if it were another company going through this we’d want them to just spit it out and say, “Are you shrinking?” And the answer is: We’re smaller. I wish I didn’t have to tell people that, but I think if I don’t do that we’re holding ourselves to a double standard.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at Tags: , , , , ,